Glen Coulthard – Urbs Nullius: Gentrification and Decolonization

March 23rd

Glen Coulthard – Urbs Nullius: Gentrification and Decolonization

Monday evening from 7-9 pm at the Or Gallery (555 Hamilton Street)

Focussing on the downtown eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia, my paper argues that the ideological rationale and material effects of gentrification in major Canadian cities is best understood when existing explanatory frameworks are placed in conversation with the emergent literature on settler-colonialism and Indigenous decolonization. A settler-colonial relationship is one where power has been distributed into a relatively secure set of unequal social relationships that facilitate the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and self-determining authority. Defenders of settler-colonial power have tended to rationalize these practices by treating the lands in question as terra nullius – the racist legal fiction that declared Indigenous peoples too “primitive” to bear rights to land and sovereignty when they first encountered European powers on the continent, thus rendering their territories legally empty and thus open for colonial settlement and development. Commonly defined as the transformation of working-class areas of the city into middle-class residential and/or commercial spaces, gentrification is also structurally prone to dispossession, in this case of low-income, racialized, Indigenous, and other marginalized segments of the urban population. Regardless of these violent effects, gentrifiers often defend their projects as a form of improvement, where previously “wasted” land and lives are made more socially and economically productive. This Lockean rationale has led some scholars (Neil Smith, Nicholas Blomley, Amber Dean) to view the gentrification of urban space through a colonial lens, as yet another “frontier” of dispossession central to the accumulation of capital. I argue that although these scholars are correct to identify gentrification as a contemporary form of colonization – especially in settler-colonial contexts like Vancouver – they have yet to sufficiently reflect on what this analysis means for how we think of the relationship between anti-gentrification struggle on the one hand, and urban Indigenous land and sovereignty struggles on the other. My concern is that, colonial analysis aside, this scholarship risks anchoring anti-gentrification efforts to an decontextualized notion of “the commons” which threatens to inadvertently treat settler-colonial cities as urbs nullius – urban space void of Indigenous sovereign presence and land rights. To avoid replicating this originary violence in anti-gentrification activism Indigenous sovereignty and land struggles must be placed at the fore of social justice organizing in the city.

Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and an assistant professor in the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of Political 

This is one of a series from the Vancouver Institute for Social Research

The Vancouver Institute for Social Research (VISR) is an independent, para-academic, graduate-level, theory-based free school that began in Feb. 2013. Our intent is to move beyond the borders of the traditional university and to open up a more accessible platform in the city for the engaged discussion of critical theory.

The Institute’s fourth session will be organized around the theme of “Sovereignty,” and is being held from March 2 to April 27, 2015.

Once a week on Monday evenings from 7-9 pm at the Or Gallery (555 Hamilton Street), professors, graduate students, and local activists will be presenting on topics of their choice. The seminar will be free to the publicand advance readings will be distributed through our WordPress site. Videos of past classes can be found at

Venue is wheelchair accessible

Vancouver Institute for Social Research


Monday, March 23, 2015 - 19:00